What is it we’re really afraid of? Is it demonic nuns and dancing witches? Or are our real fears less immediate–living beyond everything we know, trapped underground for the rest of our lives, and forced to wear corsets and eat gelatinous, flavorless cubes for sustenance? Whatever you fear, American Horror Story has done an alarmingly good job tapping into it, including in its eighth season, Apocalypse.
The show’s focus has morphed over the seasons. There’s less about serial killers, demons, and zombies now, and more about the fear brandished by politicians or that of impending nuclear annihilation. The last two season of AHS have that in common: They’re eerily realistic in the fears they portray.
That’s not to say we’re all going to wind up imprisoned by eccentric, autocratic cults after the bombs drop. It’s just that American Horror Story, especially in Apocalypse, sends our imaginations reeling precisely because the end of the world is something we’ve all considered, especially in the last couple of years.
Enter Leslie Grossman, whose character in AHS Apocalypse, Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt, is a scathing caricature of both the aloof 1% and the vapid obsessions of social media culture. Her rant berating the bunker’s more dignified occupants as “geriatrics” was American Horror Story gold, equal parts hilarity and deep-seated terror. Vanderbilt is undoubtedly an idiot, but at the same time, you get the sense that she might be the last one standing at the end of all this.
We chatted with Grossman about the show’s future, politics, those crazy outfits, nuclear obliteration, and more. When you’re done here, check out our interview with AHS star Adina Porter, and read more about this season’s first massive connection to the rest of the series.
GameSpot: I wanted to talk about the scene in the second episode where you’re kind of berating the “geriatrics.”
Leslie Grossman: Which is hilarious because [Adina Porter and I] are the same age.
Listing off all the things that we have so many options for, it seemed almost improvised, so I was curious.
It was not improvised. I can tell you that nothing on the show in improvised.
It just seemed like the kind of thing that you could maybe riff a little bit.
I probably could have, but this is not the place to that. This is a show where you stay very true to the script. And also because it’s such a specific world, it’s really, I think, necessary to stick to what’s on the page.
It was so funny though.
I did not like saying those things to Joan [Collins], and I did apologize before we shot it. I said, “I don’t agree with any of these things, and I think you’re glamorous and gorgeous and perfect.” I did not like having to yell at Joan, that was not fun for me.
Yeah, of course, I never even thought about it. Although I imagine she’s heard it all, you know.
Well, obviously it’s my character, and she’s beyond a pro and she doesn’t take any of that personally.
I think during each season of American Horror Story we can kind of look at it and say, you know, it’s pretty easy to pinpoint what the central themes and ideas are. I think it’s too early in this season but I was wondering from your perspective, what do you think the season is really about?
Unfortunately the show is so strict about spoilers. I feel terrible when I have these interviews because I’m like, “I can’t tell you anything.” But I think that at this point we are fighting for humankind and the soul of humankind. I think that, at this point, is the theme that we’re involved with right now.
I’m not gonna ask you whether Billy Eichner comes back.
That’s good because I can’t answer, but go on.
I will just say that it was so funny seeing him in the first episode and then realizing what was about to happen. Especially when his name popped up in the credits as a guest star, it said “guest starring Billy Eichner,” I said, “Oh crap, that’s not a good sign.” Because I love the two of you together. So I hope you get to have some scenes with him this season.
Well all I can tell you is that Billy is one of my most favorite people on the planet and I absolutely love working with him, and it is a joy and a pleasure whenever we get to do that. So that’s all I can say for now. But didn’t he have the best line? I love when he went, “Don’t leave me in Santa Monica, you b****!” What a great line. I loved it.
My favorite joke I kept seeing online was that it was just normal Santa Monica traffic, that wasn’t because of the missiles.
It didn’t even look too horribly gridlocked. I guess you’re right.
So the set that you guys have shot on, when we’re watching, it does such a good job of seeming so dark, so oppressive, claustrophobic, underground–I was wondering what it feels like when you’re there?
Well first of all, how beautiful are those sets?
One of the joys of getting to work on this show is that every single department is so at the top of their game. So you’re really working with the best of the best and everyone you’re working with has won multiple Emmys and is really fantastic. So to see that craftsmanship and work up close, because it makes your job as an actor so much easier, because they’re giving you the whole world and you feel like you’re in it.
I really love being in those sets for a couple reasons. First of all the furniture is really comfortable. And second of all, I love that lighting. I just wanna be shot in candlelight all day long. So I am very happy to be in those sets, and I think that the bunker is a character in and of itself. It fleshes everything out, and again, it just helps make our job so much easier. The same way that Lou Eyrich designed all the clothes, you know, they’re so fantastic.
And by the way, when we’re wearing those dresses we are fully corseted into them. There’s a lot of layers, somebody has to help you get dressed, and it’s a process, and that process really helps you get into that character and feel like you’re part of that world. And it’s the same thing with the hair and makeup, so I think those sets have absolutely have been incredibly helpful. And they do feel a little bit claustrophobic when you’re in it. But again, I love that lighting so I’m happy to work in those sets all day.
Mentioning corsets, to me it sounds so miserable, but it must also help because the characters are these contemporary people who are thrust into this almost primitive situation. So I imagine that must help when you’re literally forced into these crazy constricting, restrictive clothes, right?
I mean, I have to say, the costumes on the show, they’re so good and they’re so concerned with your comfort, so I’m never sitting in something where I can’t breathe or I feel like I’m gonna die, and you actually weirdly get used to it and then when you take it off at the end of the day you’re like, “Oh my god! How did I sit in that for 14 hours?” But when you’re in it, it’s like you weirdly get used to it. And the one huge advantage to a corset is it makes you sit up straight, and I have terrible posture, so it forced me to sit really straight. So it has its advantages.
That actually sounds pretty good.
Yeah, it’s not bad.
So what’s been your favorite thing about working with the same group of actors but in these wildly different kinds of scenarios?
My favorite thing–and it makes for a boring story–is that every single person is a joy to work with and they’re all my friends. So it does feel like I’m getting to work with people who I would hang out with in my regular life, and that is, I think, rare. And it’s a huge gift. It’s the best. I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel so fortunate that not only do I get to be on this show, but I get to work with people who are an insane caliber of actor, and then on top of that they’re lovely, and we really have real friendships, and we really have a very good time together at work. That is not super common, so that’s always my favorite part of being on that show.
I came in in the seventh season but a ton of the departments had been working on the show since the beginning. So these are people who have known each other for a very, very long time. And they have been incredibly welcoming to me. It’s a cliché that people say, “Oh, it’s like a family.” I don’t know that I would say it’s like a family, I would just say that there’s a deep sense of camaraderie and respect. So that’s really lucky to get to work in and around.
I don’t think that’s boring! I think that’s nice.
It is nice! And what’s fun and dishy is to say that we don’t get along or that there’s fighting. There is not. There is none of that. Also, when you’re working with people that are at this level–you know what I mean? That doesn’t exist. Nobody needs to prove anything to anybody who’s there. So–I am not including myself by the way in that group. I’m talking about number one, two, three on the call sheet. These are people that are multiple award winners, who have incredible careers, and they’re the utmost professionals, so everybody is truly lovely to work with. I’m very, very fortunate.
You’re super politically active on Twitter which I love, I think it’s awesome.
Thank you–and in my life by the way. I think that there’s a thing where people feel, “Well, I tweeted that out, so that’s enough,” but I also engage in stuff in my real life…I don’t shy away from being very specific and political on my Twitter. Which has gotten me into trouble, but I could not care less.
And it’s gotten me into trouble, just writing about the last season of this show.
Oh sure, absolutely, yes.
What do you think of the show’s politics, or like some people do you think that the show doesn’t have politics?
I think that last year the show was trying to show all sides. I remember when right before Cult came out people found out what it was gonna be about, there was like, “Oh, I don’t wanna hear about Trump and Hillary anymore.” There really was almost never a mention of either of them. It was really about the discord in our country and what was, and is, going on. What I felt the overarching themes of last year, it was really to me about fear, and how people use fear to control–how people can let fear overtake them to make choices they would never think they would make. And how you cannot allow that to happen. And that really, really spoke to me.
Because I don’t have phobias. I’m not claustrophobic, I’m not afraid of, you know, all the stuff that you saw last year that Allie’s character had, I’m not afraid of holes or clowns or any of that stuff. I am, however, afraid of gun violence and global warming, and, you know, nuclear escalation, women having their right to decide what to do with their bodies being taken away.
Yeah, real things.
Those are things that I find terrifying. So I don’t know how I could be quiet about it. But I think the show actually doesn’t pick a side and I think the show shows all sides. That’s my opinion. It was a long answer to a short question.
No, no. It’s a complicated question though. You mentioned your real world fears and I think that’s one of the things about American Horror Story in the last couple of seasons–it’s not really about serial killers and demons and stuff anymore. It’s about things that are so real. Seeing Los Angeles get annihilated by nuclear bombs in the first episode is like–
When I read the first script I have to say I got super freaked out, and I’ve always felt that Ryan was psychic, always–because if you remember in Cult, there were things that were written and filmed, and then stuff started happening in our culture that was being reflected in Cult. And then the whole Me Too movement really exploded. And I feel like that was a direct arc that happened in Cult, about women taking back their power, and, you know, when I read the first script and there was a nuclear bomb in the first one I was like, “Oh god!”
Yeah, I don’t wanna hear that he’s psychic when that’s what’s in the first episode.
I know! I just think he has a really specific gift about being able to tap into the zeitgeist, and then really go for it. So I think that–look, I have not thought about nuclear escalation and war as much as I have in the last year since I was a little kid and we were in the throes of the Cold War. So this is something that I think that people are thinking about now more than they have ever in the last thirty years plus. So of course, Ryan is gonna take that and run with it, because that’s really terrifying and really, really scary. And I thought that that was really terrifying, you know, that the alarms start going off on the phones and you know, that’s what it would really be like. And unfortunately, I don’t have a billionaire family that has secured me a spot in a bunker. So I wouldn’t have the same advantages that Ms. Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt would have. That’s a real fear of obviously anybody. That, I think, was what made that first episode pretty terrifying.
Although based on how things are going in the bunker maybe it would be best to just not.
A nuclear war might be the least of their problems?
Yeah, that’s probably fair to say.
Lastly, I just wanna ask if we’re gonna see you on the Good Place again this season?
I come back as maybe the worst mother that’s ever existed. And I have to say, I love that show so much. I think Mike Schur is a genius. To work with Kristen Bell is such a dream, and I get to work with Ted Danson, which I haven’t had the chance to do before, and I have to say, I am such an unabashed just total fan of his and was so thrilled when he got nominated for the Emmy, because he is brilliant. He really is. He’s such a joy, and lovely, and funny, and fantastic, and it was so fun to get a chance to work with him. I love that show. I love it, I love it, I love it, and I hope they continue to bring me back, because it’s one of my most favorite jobs that I’ve ever had the good fortune to have in my entire career. So, yes. Keep your eyes out for me and my tacky, tacky wardrobe and extensions, which are hilarious.
American Horror Story Apocalypse airs Wednesdays on FX.